That Cosmo girl now reveals herself

February 27, 2000|By Clare McHugh | By Clare McHugh,Special to the Sun

"I'm Wild Again: Snippets From My Life and a Few Brazen Thoughts," by Helen Gurley Brown. St. Martin's Press. 288 pages. $24.95.

Here's a question: Does Helen Gurley Brown still matter? After all, the 78-year-old Ms. Brown was asked to step down as editor in chief of Cosmopolitan four years ago. And her mantra, "You can have it all," seems outdated in a world where most women know that they compromise constantly -- time spent at work is time missed with husband and children, while dedication to home means little chance to demonstrate, and get paid for, one's unique talents.

Since Brown never wanted kids, and loves to work, she hasn't much to say about making tradeoffs. But she remains relevant, 40 years after the publication of her bestseller "Sex and the Single Girl," because she is a feminist with a positive outlook. Brown discovered after much struggle what she was good at in life, and she wants other women to do the same.

She endorses hard work and good manners as the only reliable tools for getting ahead, although she thinks looking pretty can't hurt. While not beautiful herself, Brown is the high priestess of making the most of what one has. And in the realm of emotions, she's an expert on how to avoid getting discouraged, and how to protect the feelings of others in a constructive way. She rejects outright the idea that women are victims -- of men, of "the system" or of their own feminine natures. For this alone, she deserves continued applause.

In her new book, more like a very extended letter from the editor than a true memoir, all of these valuable tenets of Brown's thinking are on display. Brown is also a fun, invigorating commentator on modern life, bashing shibboleths such as the one that declares flirting in the office a Bad Idea. Brown thinks flirting keeps everyone feeling happy and "frisky," and is inevitable anyway.

Fans will be glad that Brown's unique patois remains intact. She addresses everyone as "pussycat," talks about how attractive men make one feel "squidgy" inside and describes a former lover as "bow-wow" in bed. But even longtime Cosmo girls will be shocked by how much the always-candid Brown reveals.

The woman is seriously cheap, arguing with taxi drivers over small change, and using towels long after they've turned "ratty" because they are still absorbant in places. It's painful to read how Brown, knowing that her husband loves Mountain Valley spring water, would top off bottles with New York city tap to save money.

She revealed her deception at a dinner party as a funny story: her husband laughed along with everyone else, but later told her how deceived he felt. She's also obsessed with exercise, not so much for health reasons, but out of vanity. And she's a plastic surgery addict -- getting breast implants at age 73!

We're all entitled to our eccentricities, and Brown's got her share. But they do not detract from her warm and witty counsel, so different from what's found in the cold-hearted "The Rules" books or, indeed, on the pages of the post-Brown Cosmo, with its endless sex tips and mascara how-tos. Brown always offered more than that: She offered herself.

Clare McHugh was the founding editor of the men's magazine Maxim. A former reporter for the New York Post and the New York Observer, she has worked as a magazine editor since 1992 and is currently a development editor with Time Inc.

Pub Date: 02/27/00

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